Dec 18, 2014

UT Researchers Aim for Electromagnetic Railgun


Dr. Robert Hebner explains developments in railgun technology to a military delegation. Photo courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin Center for Electromechanics

By Wes Martin
For Reporting Texas

University of Texas at Austin researchers are helping to develop a futuristic weapon that uses an electromagnetic force field to propel projectiles at extremely high speeds and over much longer distances than conventional guns on Navy ships.

Over the past two decades, the “railgun” research program has brought the university millions of dollars from the Pentagon. UT has a long history of helping the U.S. Navy develop cutting-edge weaponry. Just last week, the Navy reported that it had  successfully tested and was ready to use a new laser weapon system on its ships—a $40 million technology developed with UT’s help.

But after the university developed a working railgun prototype in 2000, problems of powering it came to the fore. Railguns require a large power supply. Dependence on electricity to run everything from food processors to missile defense is amplified on the ocean, especially aboard Navy cruisers that need to be self-sustaining in order to be cost- and combat-effective.

In 2005, the Department of Energy partnered with the Pentagon to offer millions of dollars of research grants for the development of an “energy magazine” to power railguns, among other things. Since then, UT Austin’s Center for Electromechanics has focused on building electric “microgrids” – smart battery systems that can conserve large amounts of energy and be fitted on a ship.

Dr. Robert Hebner, who has worked at the center since 1999 and is now its director, told Reporting Texas that once the technology is perfected, microgrids will not only be able to power railguns on warships but also be put to a wide range of civilian uses. Here are excerpts of that interview:

Q. It’s my understanding that the university has been working with the Navy to develop a railgun. Could you tell me about the university’s involvement with the development of railgun technology?

A. Twenty years ago, the university was doing a lot of work on developing electromagnetic railgun technology. That was up until 10 years ago, when we shifted our focus to microgrids.

The university did the basic technology and research on the railgun systems and then found out that the thing we’re working on in general for 20 years doesn’t fit [on the Navy’s ships].

Q. What does that research look like?

A. We’re trying to figure out how to fit everything into a ship. So we’re working on an energy magazine, which is really how you can control the energy. They in [Washington] D.C. like the concept of a magazine… from the classical term for weapons storage aboard ships. It’s a really big buzzword in Washington right now—“energy magazine”—everybody’s using it. But it [the buzzword] is a fad and will die out hopefully.

Q. So how does that end up working? Is it just like a big battery?

A. Well, it’s more complicated than that. We’re trying to—we’ve designed—a system that can conserve energy when it needs to. It needs to be able to charge intelligently across a grid on board. We’ve been working to make these energy grids twice as dense and smart as possible. So we end up doing that a couple [of] different ways.

Number one, we’ve improved the power router and made advances in power electronics. If you turn on electronics, electricity pretty much goes wherever it wants to. With a power router you can change the direction and route that electricity ends up going, rather than where it physically would just go. So this [router] plugs and plays in a micro-grid. We had not had that capability in the past.

The second big thing is dynamic reconfiguration. When the power goes out, it’s a [small] and careful amount that puts everything back together. Within a few milliseconds we can isolate outages and surges within microgrids.

…Railgun technology can be used for all kinds of stuff. Electromagnetic aircraft launching, anti-aircraft defense, anti-missile defense… there was some research into the launching of a spaceship through an electromagnetic [system]. But all of that requires energy. So we’re working on developing microgrids for the Navy, which can transport electricity far more efficiently than current technology.

…UT has a hugely efficient micro-grid. We produce our own power and we can connect to the local grid. It can even plug back into the city grid if they need to.

Q. Each micro-grid is independent?

A. Yes. So if you try to think about this on a bigger level, counties go out even though lines and poles—the grid—is still up. So… there’s the potential that we could have each neighborhood on [its] own micro-grid attached to a larger, call it the City of Austin, grid.

Recently the [Department of Energy] put a huge investment into this technology and made a competition with grants. So that’s partly what we’re working on—trying to find a way that each neighborhood can be self-sustaining when it comes to energy.

Q. So the DoE is sponsoring the micro-grid project as a part of this railgun development program?

A. If you think about it, a ship is a micro-grid. They used to not carry very much electricity. But now, there’s a whole bunch [of equipment] on ships that relies on electricity.

So DoE is sponsoring this research because of the implications it has at the domestic level. If you realize all of your banking, entertainment, emergency response, food, all of that is important and already runs on microgrids. If we had a system that was power-cooperative, the system would be a lot stronger and way more efficient.

And the other part of this is that we’re going to have to find a way to continue to grow— without growing the grid. We need to be self-sustaining and microgrids help us accomplish that.

Q. Could you tell me more about the spaceship launcher you were developing here at UT?

A. It’s the same as the railgun technology. It’s a technology that’s gone past tech research. If you can get an electromagnetic launch from the moon to re-entry, our shuttles don’t have to carry nearly as much fuel as they do now because they can get the propulsion from a railgun platform on the moon.